UG Public Health Department working to declare racism a public health crisis


The Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Kansas, Public Health Department is making a bold move.

The health department wants to declare racism as a public health crisis, said Juliann Van Liew, director of public health, and officials are working on a draft resolution.

“What you see in the health outcomes in Wyandotte County is a very stark and unfortunate reality,” she said. “We have a racism problem.”

She acknowledges that the racism and health inequity tie can be hard for people to get their heads around, but if they look at the statistics, the problem is clear.

Addressing the racism problem

In Wyandotte County, Black children experience double the rate of elevated blood lead than white children (112 versus 51 per 100,000), according to the draft resolution. Those elevated blood levels can lead to anemia, brain damage and kidney damage, it said.

The draft resolution also said that Black Wyandotte County residents are dying at higher rates from preventable and manageable diseases, such as kidney disease and diabetes, when compared with white residents.

“You can’t overestimate how much racism impacts health. It’s so much bigger than I think white people can even understand,” said Van Liew.

“You can’t overestimate how much racism impacts health. It’s so much bigger than I think white people can even understand,” said Van Liew. PAUL ANDREWS

“Racism is not just something that happens on the street. And it’s not just one part of a person’s day. It’s so ingrained that we literally cannot move the needle on public health until we acknowledge that racism is a public health problem.”

Seeking anti-racist solutions

Van Liew got involved with the Kansas City Health Equity Learning and Action Network (LAN) during its planning stage in 2021. She said having access to people also working against racism was huge, because the work is difficult. She said she’s hoping the LAN will help more people start to understand racism, name it and fight it.

Part of Van Liew’s work with the LAN was getting her department’s own house in order. Van Liew said she wants to make sure that internally, the department is putting an anti-racism lens on all the work it does to appropriately support all the county’s residents.

Decades of redlining in Wyandotte County left a stark legacy. Institutional racism is still affecting systems and organizations throughout the county, including Van Liew’s, and she said passing the resolution will lead the entire Unified Government to take real steps to address the problem. That includes calling out racism when it’s seen.

“It’s about naming it and acknowledging and calling out racism’s impacts,” she said. “And holding ourselves accountable to do something about it.”

Van Liew said the Unified Government is not the first community to create a resolution like this. She said the Unified Government is trying to learn from others who have done it before so that the resolution and follow-up are done right.

Committing to the work

The LAN has also helped the health department nudge the entire Unified Government to push harder on anti-racist efforts, Van Liew said. She said if the Unified Government passes the resolution, the work will need to be leaned into, owned and invested in significantly.

“What’s most important is the meat and the hook of that declaration – the commitment.” she said. “It’s taking concrete, actionable steps.”

Actionable steps could include:

  • Requiring government-wide anti-racism training.
  • Setting health equity metrics and following through on the work that impacts them – from within all local government departments, not just the health department.
  • Committing consistent annual funding to health equity and anti-racism work that is led in partnership with Wyandotte’s Black community.
  • Government and its agencies changing the way business is done.

Van Liew said the Unified Government’s leadership has been a strong backer of the work, with both Kansas City Mayor Tyrone Garner and his chief of staff, Mildred Edwards, invested in helping to make the resolution happen.

“We are proud that our UG health department is committed to being part of the reckoning on systemic racism and the harmful impacts it has on the health and well-being of Wyandotte residents,”

Garner said. “As a public health department, they are crafting a plan that contributes to solutions in three important ways.

First, they are creating a diverse, equitable and inclusive work environment for all individuals, and they support an anti-racism emphasis in professional development across the UG to achieve equity.

Second, they are examining how we can make the health delivery system more diverse, equitable and inclusive. We are revisiting our policies, procedures and funding allocations with an equity lens.

Third, they are working on changing the policies, systems and environments in Wyandotte County that foster racism. They’re doing this through upstream, collaborative work with many partners in the spaces of violence prevention, safe and affordable housing, jobs, education, health access and others.

Their efforts are commendable and can serve as a model for all UG departments moving forward.”